Star Wars: Episode Two
The Pentagon's Latest Missile Defense Fantasy
by Jeffrey St. Clair
In These Times magazine, June 2000
It's wrong to say that Star Wars is back. The hare-brained
scheme hatched on the fly by Ronald Reagan in 1983 has never gone
away. Quietly but relentlessly a Star Wars industry, under the
rubric of Ballistic Missile Defense, has mushroomed.
The corporate press, which rightly heckled the plan in its
early days, soon got bored with the story and left it for dead.
Then in 1992, the missile shield's putative critics took over
the White House and became its new masters. In the intervening
years, billions of dollars poured into the Pentagon's Space and
Missile Defense Command Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to production
plants spread across key congressional districts, and into the
plump accounts of a portfolio of defense contractors and high-tech
In a 1995 review of the program in Defense lssues, an internal
Pentagon newsletter, Lt. Gen. Malcolm O'Neill, then head of the
Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, rhapsodized about a "synergized"
network of high-powered, space-based lasers, satellites, radar
and sea-, air- and ground-launched "exoatmospheric kill vehicles"
that would save U.S. cities from "theater class ballistic
missiles, advanced cruise missiles and other air-breathing threats
as well." Feel safer?
Now the Pentagon is seeking approval to put part of its system
into operation. The first phase is a ground-based system of 100
Interceptor missiles and a ring of new radar stations, both to
be based in the Alaskan tundra. Clinton has said he will make
a final decision on the system this summer. All indications are
that he will give it the green light.
Of course, there are problems. Namely, with the collapse of
the Soviet Union and corporate America's coddling of China, why
in the world would the United States need to deploy such a system?
Such questions prompt the most absurd frenzy of threat-inflation
since the notion that the Marxist government of Grenada posed
a grave danger to the Western Hemisphere. A coven of atomic warriors
has been rolled out to fulminate about "rogue nations"
and "global terrorists" who threaten what the Pentagon
brass calls the "early post-Cold War paradigm." Of course,
if Osama Bin Laden ever decides to strike back at his former friends
in the U.S. government, his payload is much more likely to be
delivered via FedEx in a Louis Vuitton suitcase than a rocket
launched from his camp in the Hindu Kush.
Another stumbling block is the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile
Treaty that flatly prohibits such a system, which the architects
of the ABM treaty rightly saw as a destabilizing force that would
spur proliferation and stockpiling of weapons. But the Clinton-Gore
administration views the ABM treaty as outmoded and, in a now
customary display of hubris, on April 25, U.S. Ambassador James
Collins delivered a draft copy of proposed changes to Moscow.
The tenor of the U.S. rewrite didn't sit well with Russian Foreign
Minister Igor Ivanov, who warned it could prove a "fatal
mistake." "Everyone should be aware that the collapse
of the ABM treaty would have a destructive domino effect for the
existing system of disarmament agreements," he said. "We
would be back in an era of suspicion and confrontation."
New Russian President Vladimir Putin has already upped the
nuclear ante by authorizing changes in Russia's military doctrine
that would allow it to launch a "first strike" nuclear
attack. Anti-nuclear activist Daniel Ellsberg, the former government
researcher who leaked the Pentagon Papers, says that may have
been the bizarre intention of the Pentagon all along. "In
order to advance a domestic political agenda," he says, "the
United States is encouraging the Russians to remain on and advance
a launch-on-warning system."
It's the old game of escalating threats. The cheerleaders
for the new Star Wars system now realize that the "rogue
state" threat isn't credible. For one thing, North Korea,
nearly crippled by drought and economic isolation, seems ready
to consider a rapprochement with the South. Iran, the Pentagon's
other favorite devil, doesn't have missiles that could reach the
United States. And Iraq, still smoldering from years of unceasing
U.S. air strikes, is barely able to maintain its water supply
system, never mind construct a fleet of transcontinental ballistic
missiles. Even that normally reliable intermediary for U.S. strategic
interests, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has publicly voiced
his doubts about the new Star Wars scheme, saying it could reignite
a global arms race.
Even some unrepentant cold warriors chafed at this chilling
dialogue. North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, who rules the Foreign
Relations Committee, vowed that any changes to the ABM Treaty
agreed to by Russia would be "dead on arrival." The
Republicans have a political motive to drag their feet. They don't
want to give Al Gore a "hawkish" victory on the eve
of the election or allow Clinton to add some more military luster
to his legacy. "So, Mr. Clinton is in search of a legacy,"
Helms blustered. "La-de-da, he already has one. The Russian
government should not be under any illusion whatsoever that any
commitments made by this lame-duck administration will be binding
on the next administration."
To top it off, the system doesn't work. There have been two
high-profile tests of the Interceptor missile to date. One was
an unmitigated failure. The other was initially touted as "a
direct kill," but it later emerged that the Pentagon had
fixed the test. The next firing is slated for June 26. A few months
ago, Defense Secretary William Cohen pointed to this date as a
make-it-or-break-it final exam for the program. But now top Pentagon
officials are beginning to show signs of test anxiety. "It
will depend on what caused the failure," hedges Pentagon
spokesman Mike Biddle. "A mechanical failure isn't necessarily
Even the program's biggest boosters now concede that the missile
shield would be all but useless against a nuclear strike launched
by Russia, China or, one supposes, France, should Parisians ever
seek to retaliate for the crimes of EuroDisney. A newly declassified
State Department document, obtained by the Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists, shows that a minimum of four U.S. Interceptors would
be needed to "kill" one incoming missile. This means
that the entire system would be exhausted trying to down 20 missiles.
The Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization projects
the cost of the system at $36 billion, a typically modest appraisal.
The Congressional Budget Office has come up with a slightly more
robust number of $60 billion-a figure the government auditors
admit is little more than a rough guess, since the administration
hasn't yet put forward details on the next two phases of the plan.
But even that number was enough to stagger some of the plan's
most ardent backers. "That's out of sync with anything I've
seen," said Rep. Curt Weldon, the Pennsylvania Republican
who chairs the House Armed Services Committee's panel on military
research and development. "But you can't put a price tag
on protecting American cities."
Despite the dearth of media coverage, the public is beginning
to sour on the plan. According to a recent ABC News poll, public
support for the Clinton/Gore version of national missile defense
is sliding; 44 percent of Americans support the plan, down from
55 percent in 1985.
So what's driving the bipartisan push for an increasingly
unpopular new missile defense system that is extravagant, inept,
unnecessary and destabilizing? You don't have to dig very deep
to find an answer: Raytheon, TRW, Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Each of these firms has secured a lucrative sector of the Star
Of course, the companies do have to make some political offerings.
And they haven't been miserly. Together these four companies have
flushed more than $2.6 million to the two political parties in
soft money alone since 1996. On top of that, the defense giants'
PACs have sluiced $3.7 million to federal candidates in the past
three years, making the Star Wars coalition one of the prime sponsors
of our political system. What money can't buy, direct persuasion
often can. These four companies spent more than $18 million lobbying
Congress in 1998, sending out a legion of former senators, congressmen
and retired Pentagon chieftains as their hired guns on the Hill.
This all gives a bracing new meaning to getting more bang
for the buck.